Utah was allowed to put off recognition of marital benefits for same-sex couples who married during a two-week period after a federal judge in December struck down the state’s ban on such unions.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver yesterday temporarily delayed a lower court’s May 19 order to grant the benefits starting June 9.
The ruling concerns more than 1,000 same-sex couples who received marriage licenses from Dec. 23 to Jan. 6, after a Salt Lake City judge ruled Utah’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional and before the U.S. Supreme Court put the ruling on hold to allow the state to appeal. The Denver-based appeals court hasn’t issued its final ruling on the appeal.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, with lawsuits and appeals pending in about 30 others. Rulings that struck down bans are on hold in five other states besides Utah. The U.S. Supreme Court in June triggered a race for the courthouse when it overturned a 1996 ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby in Salt Lake City, a 2011 appointee of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, ruled in December that Utah’s ban violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
In defense of the ban, state officials argued to the appeals court that Utah’s law was approved by two-thirds of those who voted on it and courts shouldn’t overrule the will of the electorate. Utah traced the lineage of its one man-one woman law to its constitutional agreement to bar polygamy as a condition of its being granted statehood in 1896.
With regard to the gay couples who married during the two weeks that licenses were issued, Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes, a Republican, took the position that after the Supreme Court halted further marriages, the state wouldn’t recognize any marital benefits sought by the couples.
Four couples who sued the state to force it recognize the benefits won a ruling May 19 from U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball.
The appeals court yesterday directed lawyers for the couples to file the next round of arguments by June 12.
“We appreciate the circuit court granting the stay request and acknowledging the need for more time to allow all parties a chance to address such important issues,” Reyes said in a statement posted on his website.
John Mejia, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in Utah who is assisting the couples, said he’s disappointed by yesterday’s ruling and confident the appeals court will order the state to recognize the marital benefits.
The case is Evans v. Utah, 14-cv-04060, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit (Denver). The constitutional challenge to Utah’s law is Kitchen v. Herbert, 13-4178, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit (Denver).